SUMMING UP THE RENDEZ-VOUS WITH FRENCH CINEMA OF 2012. (“Best and worst” may be a misnomer.)
The Rendez-Vous, presented by UniFrance and the Film Society of Lincoln Center at several venues in New York city in early March, is a representative series that shows the quality and variety of French filmmaking. It would be nice but unusual if it included the absolute best French film of the year — but also unlikely to include anything near the worst. The opening and closing films are usually the series’ most glitzily mainstream. Much else is more sophisticated.
The general quality is high. The French still really know how to make good films. There was a lot of good material — although nothing to set my heart on fire as in some previous years. There wasn’t quite anything as exciting as Belvaux’s kidnapping film Rapt or Xavier Zannoli’s In the Beginning in 2010, Claire Denis’ 35 Shots of Rum, the mind-boggling crime epic Mesrine (both parts) or Séraphine (with Yolande Moreau) in 2009; Honoré’s bittersweet Lovesongs, Klotz’s Heartbeat Detector and the young Mia Hansen-Love’s surprisingly mature debut All Is Forgiven in 2008; Bruno Dumont’s Flanders or the Piaf biopic La Vie en Rose or the wonderful Depardieu vehicle The Singer or the great crime thriller Tell No One in 2007; Xavier Beauvois’ touching The Little Lieutenant, which got Natalie Baye the French best acting prize, in 2006. Those are simply great films.
Possibly my favorite this year was first-time director Fred Louf’s 18 Years Old and Rising (pictured), a witty and hilarious period coming-of-ager satirizing bourgeois fat-cats and starring Pierre Niney, the youngest member of the Comédie Française, who is fabulously nimble and funny. This film is something Americans don’t know very well how to do: smart, sexy political comedy (compare Leclerc’s 2010 The Names of Love). This one is set in the early Eighties, when the socialist Mitterand came into power and French conservatives were livid, so the politics and class conflicts are heightened.
I was struck by the warmth and fluency of Robert Guédiguian’s left-oriented family story that talks about the working class and its responsibility to the have-nots, The Snows of Kilimanjaro. This is the first time I’ve seen him fully on his own turf — his last pictures were historical — and it was impressive to see his team and cast members, most of them long time co-workers and personal friends, working very well together.
I must admit, conventional and old-fashioned though it is, to thoroughly enjoying Daniel Auteuil’s remake of Pagnol’s 1940 The Well-Digger’s Daughter. It’s such a humane and satisfying world, and Auteuil’s chops are certainly up. This is his directorial debut, and he both wrote the new adaptation and played the starring role of the well-digger. The French critics as referenced on the website Allociné, were not very excited. They’ve been there too many times before. For me it was satisfying to find Auteuil in a Pagnol movie that didn’t bore me the way Claude Berri’s Eighties adaptations (also with Auteuil) did. All this stuff is tremendously retro: but why not go back and look at it?
A surprise and a place where I seemed on another wavelength from the rest of the mostly American press audience at the Rendez-Vous IFC screening was my enjoyment of Alain Cavalier’s conceptual piece about French politics, Pater, which may succeed better through the sympathetic presence of the immensely popular French actor, Vincent Lindon (Mademoiselle Chambon, Welcome). Lindon’s warmth (not to mention his tremendous authority and credibility as an actor) balances out the dry rather smug manner of Monsieur Cavalier, who however is to thank for the structure and many of the ideas in this clever largely improvised political satire.
The press screenings put on by Lincoln Center for this series didn’t include everything this year and the most notable omission was Untouchable, which is the opening night film and a huge blockbuster in France. In his New York Times’ intro piece for this year’s Rendez-Vous, Stephen Holden calls this “a crass escapist comedy that feels like a Gallic throwback to an ’80s Eddie Murphy movie.” But it would be good to see what’s box office gold in France now. The Artist received six Césars the other day, echoing the Oscars and other prior American and English awards for this safe, nostalgic, and French-free film, but they gave the Best Actor César to Omar Sy, the black star of Untouchable, rewarding popularity. Untouchable has been picked up by American movie impresario Harvey Weinstein (who scored big recently with The King’s Speech and The Artist). Americans will get to see Untouchable in theaters starting May 25th. No UK release yet.
Holden joined the early American band wagon condemning Untouchable. The Rendez-Vous inclusion of this film shows it is not by any means an elite cream-of-the-crop festival like the Lincoln Center’s fall New York Film Festival. Holden particularly liked Benoît Jacquot’s off-center film about Marie Antoinette, Farewell, My Queen, told from the point of view of the queen’s reader, which indeed is different and nice, and Léa Seydoux seductive and offbeat as the reader and Diane Kruger is good as Marie Antoinette, but the film is not so very memorable, I think. Jacquot is a director who’s uneven, in my opinion. Holden thought the teen prenancy piece, 17 Girls “feels really contemporary.” Yes, it is contempoarty, but its pregnancy pact script is based on a US news story that turned out to be untrue, and the film doesn’t go very deep. Jean-François Laguionie’s The Painting animation is indeed “witty” and rather touching; I liked it. I liked almost everything in this series. The world is full of nice animations. Holden expressed some “disappointments.” Yes, one can find those, I suppose (but I said I liked almost everything). He was disappointed in the Audry Tautou vehicle Delicacy, and rightly so. This is a kitsch pseudo-American mess; but there was no reason to expect more; Tautou’s reservoir of cuteness is running dry. It was the closing night film — a warning. Holden was disappointed in Belvaux’s 28 Witnesses — because it’s cold and gray and Belvaux made the riveting Rapt, with Yvan Atal. This story based on the 1964 Kitty Genovese case of a girl brutally raped and murdered while New Yorkers did nothing. This should have been riveting too.
A low point was Mathieu Demy’s (son of Jacques) clumsy Americano, which the French press gave a free ride to (their picture of America is different from us Americans’). Amalric’s modern dress Corneille The Last Screening was a bit disappointing, too hard to follow and — dare one say it? — unnecessary. I wanted to love Low Life, but it seemed self-indulgent, a Philippe Garrel knockoff without the real in-depth knowledge of French leftist student life.
Others films that were good if not extraordinary were the grim but factually accurate Guilty (whose star Phiippe Torreton got a César nomination), concerning a group of people held in prison for several years as paedophiles, falsely; the film about a special friendship (with Vincent Lindon), Moon Child; the solid policier, Paris by Night (with Roschdy Zem as the tough, morally dubious cop); the slightly pale (but about a good topic) Free Men, with Tahar Rahim (who I hope can live up to the extraordinary beginning Audiard gave him in The Prophet). Headwinds, Magimel directed by Lespert, was creditable.
As it turned out the most exciting two French film I saw at Lincoln Center were in other series running concurrently. One was Mathieu Kassovitz’s Rebellion/L’ordre et la morale. It is very accomplished technically and approaches a complex modern subject on many levels. And it wasn’t in the Rendez-Vous series at all. It was in Film Comment Selects, which also included a new film by Chantal Ackerman (which I missed). The other was Pierre Schöller’s political thriller The Minister, known in French as L’exercice de l’Etat, starring Dardennes regular Olivier Gourmet and costarring the great Michel Blanc (Monsieur Hire, The Witnesses). This was in the series, New Directors/New Films — which deserves coverage of its own. These, particularly The Minister, stand comparison with the list of recent Rendez-Vous greats I gave at the top of this article.